Bringing Down the Bully

Bringing Down the Bully

The lesson of the defeat in California of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s referendum revolution is this: The American people will not forever be fooled. The negative message of the Republican right has lost its power to terrorize voters.


You have to love California. Yes, I’m buzzed by the stunning rejection of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s referendum revolution aimed at turning this blue state red. That the voters soundly defeated his proposals to punish the public sector unions and legislators who dared to cross the Terminator is a bellwether moment for the nation.

Schwarzenegger was defeated primarily by the hardworking public sector workers of the state: the teachers, firefighters and other civil servants who are sick and tired of being pitted by politicians against those they are so dedicated to serving. “We’re the mighty, mighty nurses,” the joyous healers chanted in a victory conga line the night they brought the bully down.

Frankly, I feared that what was left of Schwarzenegger’s blustery charisma along with the endorsement of some of his proposals by all of the state’s big newspapers and the Republicans’ attempt to drag their base to the polls with an anti-abortion initiative would fool the voters. That it didn’t, along with the rejection of Bush backed candidates in New Jersey and Virginia, trumpets a message of hope for the country.

Hope, because California is not some bohemian outpost divorced from mainstream American reality, despite the incessant repetition of that caricature. After all, this is the state that gave the nation Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan and fell once again for the Republican big business populism of Schwarzenegger just two years ago.

The caricature is a joke. California represents the cutting edge of the nation, certainly in media, science and economic innovation, but also very much in its politics, which make the state’s palpable energy possible.

That point was lost on all seven of the state’s top daily newspapers, which endorsed the governor’s plan to take the power to draw election districts away from the legislature, a move, like the previously successful term limits initiative, that only would make the lobbyists and their campaign contributions more important.

Because of “safe” or less contested races, legislators at least have the potential to pay attention to their constituents rather than to those who finance the hotly contested races.

It is not true, as the Los Angeles Times editorialized, that under the current system, “extremists reign,” but rather that responsible legislators can focus on constituent needs rather than waging costly electoral battles financed by lobbyists. The Times went so far as to bemoan in the body of its lead election news story the voters’ refusal to heed Schwarzenegger’s effort at “reforming” California’s “notoriously dysfunctional politics.”

Dysfunctional? Compared to what? The politics of Texas where the death penalty is the most active social service program, or is it Kansas, which has decided that the theory of evolution is no longer science? What the Times and Schwarzenegger consider dysfunctional is actually functioning representative government, where the little guy gets a chance at being heard, the sort of government we no longer have in Washington.

The power of the corporate interests has been checked primarily by the state’s huge public service workers unions. Their grassroots tested power is what has allowed the state to remain economically vibrant by being responsive to the needs of ordinary folk and not just the richest winners in the economic lottery. This was an election in which voters thanked the civil servants, from teachers to correction officers, who serve them year in and out.

That victory for the progressive base was echoed in the Democrats winning the gubernatorial races in New Jersey and Virginia as well.

In New Jersey, Jon Corzine, one of the toughest liberals in the nation, beat back those who sought to turn this millionaire businessman’s social compassion into a negative. So, too, in Virginia where Timothy Kaine, a Catholic, refused to abandon his church’s opposition to the death penalty despite the most vicious right-wing attacks.

The lessons of Tuesday’s election both in the bellwether state of California and across the nation is that Lincoln was right: the American people will not forever be fooled. The negative message of the Republican right, even when fronted by a smirking action hero, has lost its power to terrorize voters.

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